What is conservation medicine, and why is it important?

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) students and wildlife academics discuss a recent field trip and how these exercises help to protect biodiversity.

You can view a gallery from the trip below.

In 2019, five final-year DVM students caught, examined, measured, tagged and took samples from a range of native marsupials, including brushtail possums and antechinus in the Strathbogie Ranges, Australia, on a conservation health field camp.

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Dr Jasmine Hufschmid and DVM student Karan Shah anaesthetise a possum before checking and recording its body condition. Photo: Joe Vittorio.

Although antechinus resemble mice, they are in fact a dasyurid, a native carnivorous marsupial family which also contains larger species such as quolls or Tasmanian devils.

While neither the tree-dwelling brushtail possums or the antechinus are threatened species, by monitoring them for diseases, parasites and other indicators of health, scientists can monitor for changes in the environment including new diseases that might threaten the biodiversity of a region. Activities like this are an important part of conservation medicine.

Conservation medicine is a growing field that combines veterinary science, conservation biology and public health to address animal, human and ecological health holistically, rather than as siloed branches of knowledge.

Given the impact that the health of animals, humans and the environment have on each other, this interdisciplinarity is especially important. The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) writes:

“In a world where five new human infectious diseases appear on average every year, three of them coming from animals, mostly from wildlife, the OIE recognizes the importance of healthy wildlife populations, which are sentinels for human and domestic animal health for infectious diseases and toxic threats. Early detection, prevention and surveillance of the wild animals’ diseases are essential. In addition, as disease outbreaks may present risk of decline or even extinction of already threatened species, the health of wildlife is a key management component for their conservation.”

We asked the supervising staff member, Dr Jasmin Hufschmid, and three DVM students what they learned and why conservation health is important to them. Click below to find out about their experience.

  • Dr Jasmin Hufschmid, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife Health
    Dr Jasmin Hufschmid, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife Health
    Dr Hufschmid leads students in examining a possum for injuries and other indicators of health.

    “Conservation medicine has grown out of an increasing understanding that health and disease can have important consequences for free-ranging wildlife species. They may transmit diseases to humans and domesticated animals and can act as indicators of poor ecosystem health. Some diseases can directly lead to the extinction of wildlife species, as we’re currently seeing with chytrid fungus, a disease that has caused the extinction of many frog species worldwide, including at least seven Australian species.

    “Veterinarians play an essential role in assessing the role of disease in wildlife populations as well as managing these diseases, but unfortunately there are not many opportunities for them to acquire some of the practical skills needed to participate actively in these investigations. I greatly enjoy taking students out into the field to share some of these skills with them and it is always very rewarding to see them gain a much better understanding of the complexities of working with free-ranging wildlife, including a strong emphasis on animal welfare.”

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  • Kok Loong (KL) Chu (Singapore), DVM student
    Kok Loong (KL) Chu.
    KL Chu removes a parasite from a possum in the Strathbogie Ranges.

    “The best aspect of the field camp was definitely the hands-on work that I got involved in - this includes setting up traps for the antechinuses and possums; physically handling and anaesthetising them for processing (drawing blood, removing parasites like ticks and fleas, conducting a physical examination). It was also an amazing experience to learn about veterinary medicine outside of the classroom.

    “Conservation and biodiversity of wildlife is important as it is closely tied in with population health and ecology. Wildlife have the potential to be reservoirs of zoonotic diseases, which could be transmitted from animals to humans, and veterinarians play a big role in the management of these.”

  • Jasmine Lowe (Melbourne), DVM student
    Jasmine Lowe.
    Jasmine Lowe prepares a wildlife pathology sample in a temporary lab in the Strathbogie Ranges.

    “I found the camp to be a wonderful opportunity to get out in the field and learn some of the techniques and approaches commonly used in wildlife research. I have a new appreciation for all the planning, preparation and hard work involved.

    “While the wildlife handling was the biggest highlight, I also enjoyed getting to know my classmates better and spending time in nature. As a future veterinarian dedicated to helping all animals, conservation is important to me because there are many unique species out there that we can learn so much from, but only if we manage to prevent their extinction.”

  • Jamie Lui (Hong Kong), DVM student
    Jamie Lui
    Jamie Lui monitors and records the heartbeat of a possum.

    “It is great to learn how to capture and handle wildlife for research in this camp. This camp provided an excellent opportunity to get an insight of wildlife research and learn wildlife handling skills.

    “Many wildlife habitats have been disturbed due to urbanisation and many species are now being endangered, understanding the importance of conservation and biodiversity is essential to maintain sustainability of the rapidly developing world.”

Banner image: Dr April Gloury and students prepare to capture possums and antechinus for health checks and monitoring in the Strathbogie Ranges, Victoria. Story by Stuart Winthrope. All photos by Joe Vittorio, Joe Vittorio Photography.